Crime and (not so much) punishment: are athletes failing as role models in the age of Covid?


Athletes, as public figures, are forced into the position of role models whether they like it or not. Their elevated status means that it is often not enough for star athletes to be one of the best in their respective fields, they must also be examples of good people.

In a 1993 Nike advertisement, basketballer Charles Barkley claimed that “just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”. The ad caused understandable controversy, with Barkley’s statement contradicting the inherent role of athletes as figures of admiration. The requirement for athletes to behave positively is important to most fans, despite it not being listed in clauses of their contracts.

In an era of social media, the private lives of athletes are more visible than ever before. Most understand this and behave accordingly.

However, during the pandemic, many athletes have been caught defying Covid-19 restrictions; breaches in these restrictions have been dealt with in noticeably different ways across different sports.

Football clubs are the worst offenders in neglecting the important influence that their players have. Aston Villa captain, Jack Grealish, broke protocol in March 2019 by attending a party and crashing his car. He was reportedly under the influence of alcohol. This incident came just 24 hours after the Villa talisman posted a video on Twitter urging people to stay at home and support the NHS. Despite this, Grealish maintained his captaincy and his position in the team, with his only punishment being a fine of two weeks wages.

In December, Grealish broke restrictions once again by attending a birthday meal for teammate Ross Barkley in a Mayfair restaurant. Neither player was punished in any way for this breach, and Grealish once again maintained his role as captain.

A similar trend is seen in other Premier League clubs. Mason Mount of Chelsea left government-imposed isolation to play football in a park with West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, avoiding punishment from the club.

Luka Milivojević, meanwhile, of Crystal Palace attended a large New Year’s Eve party before captaining his side to a 2-0 win over Sheffield United. Similarly, Benjamin Mendy of Manchester City hosted a New Years Eve party, leading Manager Pep Guardiola to defend the French full-back and essentially deny that footballers should be viewed as role models.

Premier League football clubs view players as assets more than people.

The trend of leniency seems to stop at football, however, with teams in other sports dealing with immoral behaviour more severely. England cricketer Jofra Archer left the squad’s bio secure bubble to visit his flat in Hove. Upon realisation of this, Archer was forced to self-isolate removed from the squad to play the second test against the West Indies.

Archer was only allowed to leave his hotel room to run at around 7am, before any other players arrived at the ground, wearing a mask and gloves. After Archer submitted two negative tests, he was allowed back in the side but was required to pay a £15,000 fine.

Rugby seems to have a similar attitude towards the behaviour of its stars, treating breaches of Covid-19 rules seriously. Wales winger Josh Adams was released from the training camp and banned for two Six Nations games after he was found to have joined his immediate family to celebrate a family milestone. Coach Wayne Pivac stated that Adams had “embarrassed himself”, assuring the media that he would “do his penance at home.”

The repercussions for immoral behaviour vary significantly in Britain’s major sports and is symptomatic of the different attitudes held towards athletes. Premier League football clubs view players as assets more than people, with their negative behaviour off the pitch being a mild inconvenience which, in most cases, is to be ignored. Premier league clubs neglect the influence that their players have over fans and allow the athletes to get away with inadequate behaviour that could be copied by those who view them as role models.

Athletes are bound to make errors of judgement, and unfortunately for them their mistakes are likely to be seen by a considerable proportion of the population. Millions of people, whether wisely or not, view star athletes as people to be admired and may copy their actions.

Sporting clubs, particularly Premier League clubs, are not exempt from the temporary measures, however the lenient treatment of certain players gives the impression that they feel as though they are.

Image: Steindy via Creative Commons

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